Journal: Saturday 30 January 2010
Abdul picked us up in his taxi this morning. I hadn’t seen his old Peugeot taxi for several years, but had happy memories of many long trips made in it. Taxis in Luxor now are mostly new smart-looking saloon cars, models like Hyundai and Mitsubishi, but still with the same blue and white livery. Abdul’s taxi looked sad and care-worn and he told us he was going to sell it.
We drove out of Luxor on the Airport Road with thick dusty clouds hanging over the mountains, transforming them into pale ghosts marching along the edge of the cultivated land. Before long the sun came through and picked out the vivid colours of bougainvillea and other pretty flowering shrubs that lined the road. The road-sweepers were out with their rush-headed brooms and push-carts, oblivious to the stream of traffic speeding past. Donkey-carts and bicycles of course have their own road rules, often clinging to the wrong side of the road and facing towards the speeding busses, lorries and cars which swerve violently across the lane to avoid them. At Alamary checkpoint we turned left towards Qena, through Yasa checkpoint and alongside a canal, (named the Shenhuria Canal) where children from rural reed-roofed mudbrick houses played on the banks.
At around 20km north of Luxor, with the town of Qus about 5km further on, we turned left over a bridge into the village of Shenhur. Now I could see why Abdul wanted to drive us here and not let Sam and I come on our own. Shenhur was once an important village but now looked very poor indeed. The main narrow dirt track wound between tall houses towards the mosque and twice we had to stop and ask directions at junctions, even though Abdul and Sam had both been here before, but eventually we arrived at the little Roman Temple we had come to see. The village of Shenhur itself takes its name from the hieroglyphs on the temple walls, read as pa-shn-hr which translated means the ‘ Lake of Horus’, a mysterious name as there is no evidence of a lake or water feature here.
When we got out of the car we were told that Shenhur was closed to visitors and we would need special permission to see the temple – words we were getting used to hearing on this trip. However, Abdul had met the gafir before and after the usual handshakes and exchange of mobile phone numbers (and promise of baksheesh), permission was quickly granted. I was glad he had insisted on bringing us. By the time we entered the temple precinct – a large walled patch of bare earth where a herd of goats were grazing, we were surrounded by seemingly all the children of the village shouting their heads off. Fortunately they were eventually shooed away and told to stay outside the wall. Sam and I went off into the tiny temple. A few early travellers visited Shenhur, but it never drew a great deal of serious interest until a Belgian-French archaeological mission began a decade of excavations there in 1992 under the direction of Jan Quaegebeur and Claude Traunecker and later Harco Wilems. The temple has suffered a great deal of damage over the centuries by both stone-robbing and more latterly, lime-burning. The walls of the structure were built from limestone and the best of this was taken, leaving the poorer quality stone with few badly preserved reliefs. The earliest (northern) part was built by the Emperor Augustus and this contains a central sanctuary, vestibule and door jambs that were decorated by Augustus. One of the most interesting areas is part of an astronomical ceiling in the wabet, which the excavators had re-erected. Other parts of the temple were decorated by later Roman rulers while the outer wall, which still has well-preserved reliefs, were decorated by the Emperor Claudius.
Romans following Augustus added other parts to the temple, a mammisi, a hypostyle hall and a chapel of Horudja, who at Shenhur is associated with the god Tutu, a deity I first came across in the Western Desert and have been interested in ever since. Tutu, here named as a son of the goddess Neith, is in evidence in several monuments around the Coptos area and associated with several different gods. At Shenhur Tutu is named as ‘The Powerful and Victorious God’, and the Personal Saviour ‘…who comes to one calling him’ and he is depicted surrounded by various goddesses. Min is also very much in evidence at Shenhur, as in other parts of the Coptos region. A variety of rituals are depicted on the walls, some of them unidentified and reliefs include a whole range of Theban deities. I read in a report by Jan Quaegebeur that two secret rooms were found in the temple, each with a rolling heavy stone door on wheels, giving access to the crypts – stuff of Indiana Jones!
But it was time to move on. Our next port of call was the village of Tod, around 20km south of Luxor, where the falcon-headed god Montu was worshipped since the Middle Kingdom. Abdul had insisted that we could now buy tickets at the temple, but he ended up having to drive all the way back to Luxor to get them, while we stayed to look around. It’s a good idea to remember that tickets for Tod must be bought at Luxor Temple before setting out.
Most of the monuments which can be seen at Tod today date from New Kingdom to Roman times. On the north side of the site is a small barque shrine or way-station built by Tuthmose III and restored by later Ramesside kings. On the west are remains of a quay and avenue of sphinxes. There is also evidence of a small sacred lake to the north and east. The largest remains of the temple consist of a columned hall begun by Ptolemy VIII, which includes a hidden side room which was a treasury above a chapel on the south side. The later temple was built against a wall of the Middle Kingdom remains, and a long text of Senwosret I has been over-carved with Ptolemaic reliefs. Many of the later cartouches have been left blank, which we often see in Ptolemaic building works, because the rulers changed so rapidly. Having visited Tod several times before, Sam and had a quick look around. The site has been tidied up since I was last there and the temple walls have been cleaned. The block-field has been extended to include many interesting Middle Kingdom blocks as well as a small area of later Coptic reliefs and architectural bits and pieces. It was mid-day and very hot and as Sam and I sat for a while in the shade the guards offered to share their lunch with us, which we politely refused, so they made tea for us instead.
While back in Luxor, Abdul had also bought us tickets for the tomb of Ankhtifi at el-Moalla, about 12km further south, a site that we thought was closed. There are surprises every day in Egypt and some of them are good ones. Sam and I had visited Ankhtifi’s tomb once before and at that time we had only seen the wonderful painted scenes by torchlight after dark. For a long time I have wanted to go back there. Although much damaged, the paintings in this tomb are like nothing else in the Theban region, because it dates to the hazy First Intermediate Period.
Ankhtifi was a nomarch, a provincial governor, who held many titles during the troubled times of the First Intermediate Period. His tomb at el-Moalla is famous for his autobiographical text telling of famine in Egypt and how he helped people from other regions. Like all autobiographies, Ankhtifi’s tale could be a just a little glorified. He states that he saved his people from ‘. . . dying on the sandbank of Apothis’. The text mentions the towns of Hefat and Hor-mer, whose location is not now known. Ankhtifi tells of feeding and clothing the people in adjoining districts, and states ‘. . . I was like a sheltering mountain . . . the whole country has become like locusts going in search of food, but never did I allow anybody in need to go from this nome to another one. I am the hero without equal.’ Famine seems to have haunted the Egyptians periodically and there are many reliefs in monuments over the whole country which show scenes of hunger and hardship. Archaeologists suggest that the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the end of the Old Kingdom was largely due to a prolonged drought when the Nile inundations were low and the fields did not produce enough food. There are many scenes of obtaining and cooking food in Ankhtifi’s tomb, though most of them involve catching wild animals, birds or fish rather than the production of grains and fruit that we see in the New Kingdom tombs.
The architecture of Ankhtifi’s tomb chapel is also very unusual in that there doesn’t seem to be a flat surface anywhere. The walls follow the natural curves and bumps of the rock and the remaining pillars seem to be all irregular shapes and sizes, leaning in different directions, but somehow manage to look elegant. Where painted plaster remains in patches on the walls the colours are very vibrant and the decorative themes are unusual. One colour especially predominates and that is a pale green not usually seen in Theban tombs. On the western wall there are remains of a fishing scene showing a wide variety of very detailed fish.
After we had seen Ankhtifi’s tomb we walked along the terrace where several more tomb entrances could be seen, but in most of these the decoration has been lost. Finally, the guard opened the door to the last tomb, that of Sobekhotep, which was small with several rather deep open burial pits, so there was little room to move around. The decoration here could be seen on the walls but is very damaged. The hill of el-Moalla on which this cemetery is situated is pyramid-shaped and recent excavators have found pyramid elements in the burials, echoes of the Old Kingdom royal tombs. The necropolis stretches for about 5km and contains hundreds of tomb entrances.
As we drove back to Luxor in the late afternoon the sky was again black with dark dusty clouds gathering on either side of us, airbrushing out the surrounding landscape. Could be more bad weather on the way.